Ever been lost in the woods? It isn’t a pleasant feeling, to say the least. Everything starts looking the same as your reference points and topographical bearings mesh and your once-easy route becomes a complicated puzzle. You think you know your way out, and you convince yourself that yes, this is the way I walked in, past the fallen old growth tree and over the bubbling creek. But you’re not exactly sure yet. Something just doesn’t add up, and you start to panic.
Up ahead, a clearing overlooking an expansive valley is vaguely recognizable. You remember the unfolding foothills, the snow-capped peaks far in the distance. Yes, this is the path, you’re sure of it, and you breathe a sigh of relief. The massive granite boulder as big as a house should be about 100 yards on the left, and from there it’s a straight shot to the parking lot. But the boulder isn’t there. You’ve referenced the wrong tree, the wrong creek, the wrong route. Face it: you’re lost and confused. What do you do?
Your decision here largely determines your fate. More than likely, weather conditions will change drastically in the coming hours, so you’re faced with one of two options: keep pressing on, or stay put for the night. It’s unbelievably easy to make the wrong call.
Staying put doesn’t sound appealing. You’re becoming cold and nervous, and besides, the car couldn’t be that much farther. You were only on a short day hike, and it seems you made a wrong turn at the junction where two poorly signed trailheads collided. It happens. Your map isn’t the best, but it will have to do.
So you trudge on, and the going is slow. You’re not sure of yourself, your compass bearings, how far you’ve actually hiked. Nightfall is fast approaching, and with it comes the cold. You packed little more than a sweatshirt, trail mix, water and cheap matches, nowhere near enough to get you through the night. You are now more lost than before, your disorientation a product of anxiousness and inattention to detail. Having not told anyone of your whereabouts (it’s only a day hike, so what could happen?), the chance of being picked up is slim.
Each year, hundreds of people die or chance death hiking the backcountry. Their crisis is twofold, for oftentimes they lack simple preparation, and because of that they make the wrong decisions. It’s amazing how simple problem-solving situations are blown out of proportion when there is a threat of, say, dying from exposure.
I’ve been disoriented a few times, only having lost my cool once. A buddy and I were up on the mountain — a mountain I know fairly well — for a weekend camping trip. We set up camp, then decided to shed our gear and go for a short day hike, just a simple loop. Well, part of my map was nullified by a recent avalanche we previously ignored, so we bushwhacked our way forward thinking we’d hook up with the trail on the other side of the wreckage. Go figure, we never found the other side of the trail, and we were now off course with nothing but a few granola bars and a liter or so of water. No jackets, no gloves, no fire starter and nighttime lows hovering around 40 degrees. How could we have been so stupid?
I’ve always enjoyed contemplating the concept of human beings pushing their physical and psychological boundaries in desperate situations (so as not to sound like some sick scientist, I’m referring to the involuntary experiences created by unfortunate circumstances, especially in the woods). Survival is no easy task. Judgment is crucial, yet many of us would crack under the pressure. It’s a well-known fact that he who keeps his cool during trying times will more than likely emerge victorious. This general rule of thumb couldn’t be more appropriate in a survival situation.
There are numerous books on this topic. My recommended read: “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, where he asks “who lives, who dies, and why?” Pick it up, and think about its theme next time you pack for “just a day trip.”
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